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Why Being Just A Tiny Bit Better... Can Make All The Difference

15/09/2017 11:22 BST | Updated 15/09/2017 11:22 BST

I have been pondering about how the world works lately, one of my favourite past times. For example, have you ever noticed there is a pattern of the top 1% of businesses or personalities sucking up all the media profile, funding, and customers, leaving the rest surviving on scrapings and grinding away like bottom dwellers?

It's almost like a magnetic force that keeps the wealth gap wide. Why does it happen? It seems like the world is run like a winner takes all game. Even our democratic government is run through a 'first past the post' system, meaning if a party gets 20% of voters, you could still get zero seats if you come second in each constituency. Simply put, you have to cross the finish line first to get anything. The winner gets to be MP, and potentially even Prime Minister and the loser - nothing, aside from worn out shoes and bad memories.

'Winner takes all' feels binary. It's actually one of the reasons why specific companies dominate sectors. Facebook killed Myspace and Bebo and forced others to adapt to a specific niche within the social network, like professional work for LinkedIn or sheltered by the state, like Weibo in China. It's a zero sum game.

This absolutism then gives an impression of the market leader being streets ahead of the competition. Perhaps they have the magic sauce or invented something so mind blowing it disrupted the entire industry? That's actually quite rare. Instead, the enterprise might just be marginally better or moved a little faster than others, and over time, that alone is enough to get them across the threshold to success.

Let's look at sports for example. We all know Usain Bolt, dominating sprinting for over a decade. How many people outside sporting enthusiasts know Yohan Blake? He ran the 100m at the London Olympics, with a blistering 9.75 speed, making him one of the fastest people of all time. He is young, handsome, charismatic, articulate, everything. But guess what, he lost to Bolt. You see the difference in fame and stature, despite losing by a tiny margin.

Those close wins add up to significant cumulative advantage. There is a compound effect of constantly winning, even if it's less binary than winning an election or Olympic Gold. Take being a plumber. Plumber A responding a little faster than Plumber B in an emergency, all other things being equal. Plumber A will constantly accumulate more customers, and each time receives another positive review, gradually but relentlessly opening the gap between plumber B, eventually with Plumber A dominating the market.

Look at search engines. Say two driving instructors competed in the same space, with the same car and the same market rate. But one was savvier on search engine algorithms, so it's always on the top of Google when people shopped around to learn to drive in the area. Being top or being dropped into the second page makes a big difference, who even goes to the second page of Google?

This phenomenon also explains how society is structured. Kids who grew up in nicer neighbourhoods might get one grade better than someone who had a tougher upbringing. That one grade might be the difference to get into university (whether that should make a change is another story), and having a degree might be the mandatory requirement for a specific career. You see right from the beginning the impact of accumulative advantage.

So what does this mean for you? Being good in isolation is not always enough, you have to be good enough to hit a certain threshold in your niche. Just because you haven't made it yet, it doesn't mean you are a failure, or that your product or service is bad, it just hasn't hit that magical line yet. The line depends on the industry and the level of competition. Being 'disruptive' really means finding a new segment where the threshold isn't as settled. That's not easy, but figuring out what the problem you are trying to solve and removing as many barriers as possible to meet them helps.

You only need to be a little better or a little faster than the competition to gain traction, but if you can sustain that, the accumulative advantage will give you a big lead. In many ways, these tips apply not just to your business life, but your personal life too. Success, therefore, seems relative, not absolute to the competition. Strangely this actually reassures me about my life direction, and hopefully, it will for you too.

Johnny Luk